The far right is determined to succeed as Italians vote in regional elections

Italians will vote in seven regional elections on Sunday and Monday – the first major electoral test for the fragile national coalition since the coronavirus outbreak – with the far right poised to make significant gains.

While voters have mostly approved of prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s handling of the pandemic, his popularity has waned in recent weeks as the government grappled with the reopening of schools and economic challenges. At the same time, the government’s allies, the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Democratic party (PD), are weak at regional level compared with the tight-knit coalition led by the far-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini.

A candidate with Brothers of Italy, the smaller far-right party running in coalition with Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, looks set for a clear victory in the central region of Marche, potentially ending 25 years of leftwing rule. A win there would give Brothers of Italy, a descendant of a post-fascist party and led by the increasingly popular Giorgia Meloni, its second regional seat after Abruzzo.

The far right has played on immigration in Marche, especially since early 2018, when 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro was allegedly murdered by an illegal immigrant in Macerata. Days later, a far-right extremist wounded six African migrants in a shooting rampage in the city, claiming he was acting in revenge for the murder.

But other themes, such as the mismanagement of the region by the incumbent Democratic party in recent years and the need for a more robust healthcare system and better infrastructure, have emerged as the dominant drivers of change.

“The change is not unique to Marche. You’re seeing it in other Italian regions that were traditionally leftwing,” said Andrea Prontera, an assistant politics professor at the University of Macerata. “Either the League or Brothers of Italy are rising in those areas.”

Polling indicates that the race is going to be extremely tight in Tuscany, a leftwing bastion for over 50 years where the League has captured several towns and cities in recent years, and in Puglia, where the PD’s incumbent president, Michele Emiliano, is competing against a Brothers of Italy candidate.

The only region that the Democratic party looks certain to retain is Campania, where the popularity of the current leader and candidate Vincenzo De Luca has surged thanks to his tough response to the pandemic.

The League is certain to keep hold of Liguria and Veneto, another region where voters have appreciated the leadership during the pandemic. The seventh vote is in the small Aosta Valley region, which has its own party system.

However, the real game-changer would be Tuscany, where the League’s candidate, MEP Susanna Ceccardi and outgoing mayor of Cascina, which was the first Tuscan town to fall to the party in 2016, is outshining the PD’s candidate. Salvini’s coalition has already managed to seize eight regions from the left since general elections in March 2018.

“Losing Tuscany would be like the American Democrats losing California,” said Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza university.

While regional losses for the PD will raise questions over Nicola Zingaretti’s leadership and an expected lacklustre performance for M5S will intensify the party’s internal disarray, a thumping victory for the opposition is unlikely to lead to snap elections.

The timing is also delicate as Italy drafts a spending programme for its €209bn share of the European Recovery Fund.

“There is no alternative in parliament,” added Diletti. “So you might have a reshuffle, but no more than that as stability is needed in order to have a strong relationship with Europe.”

Votes are also being cast in mayoral elections in over 1,000 towns and in a national referendum on reducing the number of parliamentariansto cut costs, a flagship policy for M5S.

“The advantage they have is that no quorum is necessary for the referendum,” said Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of the London-based research company Teneo Holdings. “So even if less than 50% of people vote, the referendum will be considered legitimate.”

The PD and M5S’s shaky relationship is reflected in the fact that they were unable to ally in any of the regional votes apart from Liguria, where their defeat is inevitable.

“The takeaway from this round of elections is that the alliance is not particularly strong – it’s struggling to project itself elsewhere,” said Piccoli. “A heavy loss on 20 and 21 September would leave this government in office, but in tatters and struggling to push ahead at a very crucial time.”